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[Feature] How logistics centers became hot spots for COVID-19 infections

 Heavy workload, unstable employment status and poor working conditions put logistics workers at risk of infection


It takes only a few clicks online in South Korea to have almost everything -- from fresh vegetables to household essentials -- delivered right to your door within several hours.

The convenience of online shopping and quick delivery has even been noted as one of the secrets behind the country’s early success in its fight against the novel coronavirus, making social distancing possible for many.

But the latest COVID-19 outbreak in e-commerce logistics centers reveals that there is a dark side to the story. To enable the marvel of overnight or same-day delivery, workers at logistic centers toil in conditions where they can hardly protect themselves from the virus.

As of Sunday, coronavirus cases traceable to a distribution center run by local e-commerce giant Coupang rose to 111, the cluster first having been recognized on May 23.

“It looks like public health guidelines, such as wearing masks or taking a break if they are sick, have not been properly carried out,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said Thursday.

COVID-19 strikes at heart of e-commerce

It was business as usual at one of major logistics complexes for multiple e-commerce firms in Seoul’s Songpa-gu, when The Korea Herald visited on Thursday. Workers did not appear to strictly follow public health guidelines from the government.

The center is not the epicenter of the latest logistics-linked virus breakouts, although it had been briefly shut down the previous day after a part-time worker was found infected.

Workers gathered for smoke breaks with face masks barely hanging on their faces, and some of them didn’t wear masks at all. Warning signs were nowhere to be seen, and the workplace for around 3,000 workers per day was largely free of quarantine efforts.

“Everyone wears face masks because that is a requirement, but they tend to loosen up the face cover while working,” said Lee, a 24-year-old employee at the logistics center. “This line of work requires physical labor and speed. People sweat and face masks become useless in just hours.”

Lee added that people can’t help but stay close to each other during work, as moving, packaging and loading delivery goods require them to work more efficiently when standing almost right next to each other.

Another worker surnamed Choi spoke of workload spiking since the coronavirus outbreak.

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the work schedule has been changed from five days a week to six,” said the a 25-year-old employee of Market Kurly.

“Of course we get overtime pay for extra hours, but all of us have been really busy with extra volume of delivery goods.”

Both Lee and Choi are full-time workers, entitled to some sick days and holidays.

But that is not the case for contract, part-time workers like Jang, who started working for Coupang inside the complex earlier this month. The first identified case of the logistics-center cluster was a part-timer at the company’s another center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

“For me, this work is determined on a daily basis, meaning I don’t know if I will be actually working the next day,” said Jang, 23, who loads and unloads cargo trucks two times a week and is paid around 100,000 won for a full day of work.

“I am doing this work as a means to earn extra cash, so it doesn’t matter too much for me whether I get work the next day,” he added. “But other workers in their 30s or so seem to be really dependent on this daily work.”

Most logistics centers rely heavily on part-time workers. Unlike full-time workers, they are given no sick days or welfare benefits. Those who are sick can be replaced in just a matter of minutes, as it is a relatively high-paying gig that does not require special skills.

Only 2.7 percent of 3,760 workers at Coupang’s Bucheon center, where over 70 workers were infected, are regular workers. The rest are void of basic employment rights, civic group Workplace Gapjil 119 said in a statement last week.

Some 2,588 daily workers and 984 contractors have no choice but to work even when they are sick, as taking leave threatens their employment opportunities. It urged that these workers are in need of employment insurance program for leave allowance and unemployment benefits.

A flashback to March’s call center outbreak

Before this outbreak, South Korea had a chance to grasp how coronavirus can strike the most vulnerable in the labor force.

Early March’s outbreak at a call center in Seoul’s Guro has striking similarities to the distribution center case: Crammed workplaces, unstable employment status of workers and working environments that make virus precaution challenging -- in the case of the call center, it was the very nature of the job, the constant talking.

Some 169 people with links to the call center were infected, which was the largest cluster in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Following the outbreak, the authorities tightened requirements for quarantine to prevent mass infections at crammed workplaces.

But not much has changed, according to Kim Hyun-ju, who has been working for five years at a call center in Daejeon for Kookmin Bank.

“I cannot keep a mask on all day. Some customers complain that they cannot hear us clearly,” she said. “Given the nature of our work, there are many people who have respiratory illness, but they cannot afford to take a day off. I don’t think any manager would gladly allow us to get rest when we say we are sick.”

Call center employees are hired through a few subcontractors that have to compete to secure a contract with Kookmin Bank. One less worker means less calls taken and less business.

The virus was spread from the logistics center in Bucheon to a call center in the city through a patient who worked part-time at both workplaces.

“I can really relate to the person who still had to go to work when she was sick,” she said of the patient.

Spooked by mass infections at the distribution warehouses, health authorities are conducting inspections into the country’s all logistics centers -- some 32 nationwide -- by June 1. The authorities on Friday distributed detailed quarantine guidelines for distribution warehouses.

"We saw this coming"

Labor activists and experts call on the government to work toward creating a sustainable work environment by guaranteeing equal level of protection for both regular and non-regular workers.

“The mass infections at the logistics centers show how unsafe workplaces are with high proportion of irregular workers because they are largely sidelined in terms of workplace safety,” said Kim Jong-jin, senior researcher from the Korea Labor & Society Institute.

“I am not saying we should hire all employees in permanent positions. I am saying every employee should be guaranteed safety at work -- being given individual protective gear, for example -- regardless of their employment status,” he said.

Kim Se-kyu, a spokesperson for the Parcel Delivery Workers’ Solidarity Union, said he saw this coming.

“Companies are not taking responsibility for those working on a daily basis. Profits come before workers’ (safety,) he said.

“Because of our employment status, if we don’t work, there is no alternative. We just lost our jobs,” he said, calling for better social safety net -- paid leave days and employment insurance -- for non-regular workers and part-time contractors.

According to government data, only 49.4 percent of the employed population in South Korea had employment insurance coverage in August last year.

Since the universal payout of COVID-19 disaster relief funds stemming from financial difficulties of workers from contracted overall economy, the Moon Jae-in administration has been studying ways to expand the employment insurance scheme to all workers, including the self-employed.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor vowed earlier this month that the government will prepare a road map for a countrywide employment insurance program by the end of this year.

By Ock Hyun-ju and Ko Jun-tae
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